History Weekend – The Iconoclast Brann

If ever there were a 19th Century journalist more deeply wedded to the old mission statement of comforting (and avenging) the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable with energy and fierce enthusiasm, that person would have to be one William Cowper Brann. In the last decade of the 19th Century, he possessed a small but widely-read newspaper called the Iconoclast, a reservoir of spleen the size of Lake Michigan, and a vocabulary of erudite vituperation which would be the envy of many a political blogger today. Born in 1855, in Coles County, Illinois, he was the son of a Presbyterian minister. Upon losing his mother when barely out of diapers, he was placed with a foster family. At the age of thirteen, he ran away from the foster home and made his own way in the world, armored with a bare three years of formal education. He worked as a hotel bellboy, an apprentice house painter, and as a printer’s devil, from which he graduated into cub reporting. He and his family – for he did manage to marry – gravitated into Texas, settling first in Houston, followed by stints in Galveston and in Austin, working for local newspapers as reporter, editor and editorialist, and attempting to launch his own publication – the first iteration of the Iconoclast – terming it “a journal of personal protest.” For William Cowper Brann had opinions – sulfurous, vituperative and always entertaining, even for a day when public discourse not excluding journalism was conducted metaphorically with brass knuckles – and he despised cant, hypocrisy and what he termed ‘humbuggery’ with a passion burning white-hot and fierce.

The first launch of the Iconoclast failed, but nothing discouraged, Brann sold the name and the press to another writer – William Sidney Porter, who much later became well-known under the nom-de-plume of O. Henry. Brann knocked around between big-city Texas for another couple of years, which makes one wonder if a) his wife ever entirely unpacked the Brann household goods, and b) what she said in private to her peripatetic spouse at hearing of yet another move. At the start of 1895, Brann – now working as chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News – re-launched The Iconoclast as a monthly periodical. Eventually, he had a subscription list for it of over 100,000, a fair portion of it national and even international. Which is quite understandable, given his talent with a well-turned phrase and a savagely telling choice in description; in this century he would have been a blogger, and a very well-read one at that. A selection of his pieces (linked here) are readable and highly entertaining, very much on par with luminaries like Mark Twain, in my opinion. (He had written a couple of plays, and at the abrupt end of his life was working on a novel.)

Brann had his list of favored targets – and in what his near-contemporary Mark Twain termed ‘The Gilded Age’ (and Twain did not mean that as a compliment, but rather as something cheap and nasty, all tarted up to look rich) he was rather spoiled for choice in the targets of his broadsides. His remarks on one of the signature social events of the decade – the notorious Bradley-Martin masquerade ball are one of the most savagely-slashing preserved.

Mrs. Bradley-Martin’s sartorial kings and pseudo-queens, her dukes and DuBarrys, princes and Pompadours, have strutted their brief hour upon the mimic stage, disappearing at daybreak like foul night-birds or an unclean dream—have come and gone like the rank eructation of some crapulous Sodom, a malodor from the cloacae of ancient capitals, a breath blown from the festering lips of half-forgotten harlots, a stench from the sepulcher of centuries devoid of shame. Uncle Sam may now proceed to fumigate himself after his enforced association with royal bummers and brazen bawds; may comb the Bradley-Martin itch bacteria out of his beard, and consider, for the ten-thousandth time, the probable result of his strange commingling of royalty- worshiping millionaire and sansculottic mendicant—how best to put a ring in the nose of the golden calf ere it become a Phalaris bull and relegate him to its belly.

In a word, he detested Europeans, particularly British, the new rich of America, vulgar excess, excess of every sort, the deviousness of cows, cant and hypocrisy of every stripe, and Baptists – of which last he opined, “I have nothing against the Baptists. I just believe they were not held under long enough.” (It has to be admitted here that he detested blacks and didn’t think much of women, either.)

Since he was living and working in Waco – the home of Baylor University, which Brann described as “that great storm-center of misinformation” – and thus a kind of Vatican of Southern Baptists, these openly expressed and published remarks regarding Baptists did excite considerable local comment and resentment. Brann paid a price, personally – in being occasional apprehended and assaulted by partisans. His popularity, locally and elsewhere, soared, however. Local anger became especially marked when he published accusations that college administrators and their family members had imported orphaned female child converts from missions in South America … and not only exploited them as domestic help, but sexually as well. I am given to wonder if this didn’t hit Brann in several personal ways, having been given up by his own father, the Presbyterian minister, into the care of people who cared so little for him that he ran from their tender care the minute he was able to do so. But Brann was just getting warmed up. Next, he alleged that male faculty members were pursuing female students sexually. Any father contemplating sending his daughter to Baylor as a student was putting her at hazard of being raped; the university was nothing but – in his words, “A factory for the manufacture of ministers and magdalenes,” – magdalenes at that time being the socially acceptable term for ‘whores’.

A Baylor supporter – the father of a female student there, one Tom Davis who dealt in real estate in Waco and the surrounding country – took personal insult from Brann’s choice of words, simmered over it … and rather than writing a fiery letter to the fiery editor, took his own gun, emerged from his office on downtown Fourth Street, and ambushed Brann as he walked past with a friend in the late afternoon of April 1, 1898. Davis shot Brann in the back, mortally wounding him. The sound of bullets sent newspaper vendors, passing innocent citizens, street musicians and trolley-car motormen, policemen and simple citizens going about their business on a busy Friday evening darting for cover. First escorted to the local police station and then carried home by his friends, Brann died the next morning. He was buried in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery; the monument marking his grave is a square dark stone pedestal with his profile in white stone and the word “Truth” engraved on it, topped with a Brobdingnag-sized stone lantern … which since appears to have been stolen, if the comments on Find a Grave are anything to go by. The publication of the Iconoclast itself was in the hands of Brann’s long-suffering wife, who subsequently sold it … again. The new owners removed the publication to Chicago; likely it sank shortly thereafter, since it was Brann himself whose corrosive genius in print carried it all on his back.

And what of Tom Davis, who chose to ambush and shoot his bete noir in the back? He didn’t last any longer than William Cowper Brann … who in the best tradition of the Wild West – upon being shot in the back and holed through his left lung, drew his own personal Colt revolver and emptied all six shots into Davis … who fell into the doorway of a tobacconist’s establishment. Back in the day, the city fathers insisted that Waco was the Athens of the West … but the locals all called it Six Shooter Junction, for the disagreement between the newspaper editor and the real estate man was only one of many.

10 thoughts on “History Weekend – The Iconoclast Brann”

  1. Too bad the editors of Charlie Hebdo didn’t have that option. In those small offices, even cartoonist couldn’t miss. The duel was not a barbarous remnant of the middle ages in the 18th century. Just as capital punishment insured justice in an unstable West, the duel insured that somebody paid for the insult. Courts were unreliable.

  2. As I started reading this article I was thinking of Mark Twain. He became Mark Twain while working for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, NV. One story is that he adopted this pseudonym because of so many people he lampooned wanting to find him and …well, you can figure out the rest.

    Hated Baptists and lived in Texas? He sure picked a good place. :-)

    My first impression was that he was a character in the best sense of the world – meaning different but admirable for his chosen path – but he sounds like a bitter man full of bile whose violent demise would have been a prediction.

  3. O. Henry? To the best of my knowledge, yes.

    He did have a good sense of the world, Bill … but I think he had an under-developed sense of discretion once he had full control of his own publication. He may have had some reason for general unhappiness with the world. Not just the orphan thing – but one of his own daughters killed herself at the age of 13, and some of the things I read say that he never forgave himself for it, although I have no notion of what the circumstances actually were.

    One of the curious things about this is you would think than 1898 was rather late in the century for the classical Wild West … but things continued being lively for at least another twenty years. Pancho Villa raiding across the border into New Mexico … and in the memoir I am working on right now, for a gentleman who grew up in Brownsville – his father owed a ranch which was still being raided by organized gangs of cattle rustlers around the turn of the century.

  4. Sgt. Mom,

    I look through the Newspaper Archive a lot at old papers from 1900-1930. Looking at old Comanche TX Chief editions from that era, I was amazed at the number of men shot and killed on a weekly basis in Comanche County. In every issue there were at least 3 deaths from gunshot, and at least one or two suicides, mostly farmers about to lose their farms.

    The Wild West took a very long time to fade away……

  5. “I read O Henry when I was young.” Me too, on the recommendation of my father.

    “The Wild West took a very long time to fade away……” Was there any sign in those papers of the rise of Prohibition gangsterism?

  6. No, not in the papers I was looking at. Mostly West Texas small town weeklies. There were a lot of busts for stills and bootlegging though all through the 1920’s. Occasionally a body floating in the local creeks….

  7. We used to watch O Henry’s Full House usually around Christmas time.


    I haven’t thought of it in years. Really fond memories. Of course, we read them all in school, which made the movie that much better. I can’t imagine kids reading them now, but maybe they do.
    The Cop and the Anthem featured Marilyn Monroe in a sort of cameo. The best was Ransom of Red Chief, timeless story which has been remade and reworked over and over through the years.


  8. “The Wild West took a very long time to fade away……”

    In the SW of Scotland there survive yarns of a cannibal called Sawney Bean: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sawney_Bean
    I once heard a scholar argue in all seriousness that the story originated in the Bronze Age. (Not that I believed him).

    More plausibly, I read recently of a chap in the West Country of England in (I think) the 18th century who happened to look carefully at the change he was given after a purchase. It included a denarius.

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